As the dust begins to settle on a bridge collapse last Thursday in Costa Rica’s central Pacific region, the only thing still standing seems to be a political scene dominated by finger-pointing.
A scarred community, still grappling with the loss of family members and friends, is blaming the government, which appears to have ignored what they claim were repeated pleas to fix the bridge.
Government officials, who have chosen to hide behind their resumes of infrastructure accomplishments, have directed criticism at the bus driver for disregarding weight restrictions, but also at past administrations, which have left a backlog of infrastructure problems.
And opposing political parties are using the tragedy as ammunition for the 2010 presidential campaign, shouting for resignations of members of the National Liberation Party-dominated government.
Meanwhile, the person who has borne the brunt of the fallout is 44-year-old Karla González, who resigned Monday from her post as minister of Public Works and Transport. Reluctant to lose another cabinet member, President Oscar Arias initially wouldn’t accept González´ resignation. He defended her record, saying that she had done more as minister than anyone who preceded her in office.
But on Tuesday, Arias wrote to González, saying, “It gives me pain to accept your resignation. … It worries me that our country is becoming accustomed … to using people to as means to an end.”
Yet, even after González accepted the “political responsibility” for the tragedy, residents of Turrubares, which was connected to the larger town of Orotina by the bridge, remain without an easy route to pharmacies and grocery stores, repairs to other faulty bridges around the country are caught in red tape, and families continue to cope with the loss of loved ones.
A Failed System
At 6:25 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22, a yellow school bus carrying 38 people plunged into theTárcolesRiverwhen one of the steel cables supporting a wooden suspension bridge snapped. The bus was following its normal route from Turrubares to Orotina but, on this occasion, it didn’t make it across.
The day before, a heavy truck reportedly had backed into the bridge, causing damage to one of the cables, witnesses said. So when the eight-ton school bus attempted to cross the bridge the following day, the weight was enough to cause the cable to snap.
González immediately went on the defensive. Though she accepted some responsibility, she also said, “We did put up signs to warn drivers not to cross carrying more than four tones in weight and we cannot be expected to put a policeman on the bridge to ensure drivers obey the signs.”
But, as the weekend unfolded, evidence came forth that appeared to place a greater share of the responsibility for the collapse on the shoulders of González’ ministry.
According to official documents, MOPT had the money in place in 2008 to replace the 89-year-old bridge, but it never acted. Officials knew the bridge was a safety hazard.
They had even bought an iron beam for reinforcement in 2002, but never attached it. And, as recently as last month, the local mayor sent a letter to González, reminding her of the bridge’s precarious state.
“Everything, absolutely everything, was ready for bidding and financing the work (of building the new bridge),” Marvin Rojas, a legislator with the Citizen Action Party (PAC), said in a statement.
Restitution in a Resignation
Accusing González of poor oversight and management, Rojas was just one of a loud bevy of politicians and local residents demanding González’s resignation. Yet, more than the cries of her political opponents, it was the victims of the tragedy that pushed González to resign, according to her statement.
“I am moved by a deep sadness and sense of compassion for the families and communities who were separated from their loved ones this weekend. I cannot say anything more to soothe them in their feelings of pain,” she said.
“Moreover, I sympathize with their feelings of anger against the state and against the Public Works and Transport Ministry that failed them…. It’s in respect to this feeling that I present my resignation as a representative of the ministry, the state and a system that failed them.”
Rolando Araya, a presidential candidate for the Patriotic Alliance Party and former minister of Public Works and Transport, said it was the right thing to do.
“This problem originated because of her lack of attention,” he said. “There were notifications sent to her by the municipality, by MOPT, and nothing was done. Her resignation was necessary.”
What’s Left for Arias
For President Arias, the situation points to a larger problem facing the country. To him, it seems that every time his administration hiccups or falls off course, he looses a top cabinet member. Only eight of the 18 ministers who joined Arias at the beginning of his term in office remain in their posts.
“It’s pathological the delight with which honor is blemished in Costa Rica, with which honest people are subjected to gruesome public judgement, with which accusations from one doubt turn them into criminals,” he wrote in his letter to González.
“In our country, any error is (punished) by making (the one at fault) a protagonist in a Roman circus.”
Kevin Casas, a senior fellow in foreign policy for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., in the United States, has watched the situation unfold from afar. Casas served under Arias as vice president and found himself in the center of a political scandal when a memo he wrote advocating hardball political tactics in favor of the Central American Free trade Agreement with the U.S. was leaked to the press. The furor forced him to resign in the fall of 2007.
“It’s self-destructive – the way we’ve begun carrying out lynchings at the highest levels,” Casas said. “It has come to be a sign of government effectiveness when you see heads rolling.”
While last Thursday’s tragedy resulted in the death of five people, it’s impossible to count how many lives were saved by the millions of dollars of infrastructure repairs done under González’ leadership, Arias said in her defense.
“For many years, MOPT never had the resources to improve our infrastructure. But this government has quintupled (spending),” he said. “We have done in three-and a-half years what was not done in 30 years. Without a doubt, we have to accept that resources are not sufficient to attend to all our needs in roads, bridges and airports.”
Meanwhile, the accusations flying in both directions haven’t put one more brick in a bridge or one more guardrail on the edge of a ravine.
For González, who is cleaning out her desk this week, her decision couldn’t be one made in vain.
“We must do whatever it takes to change a bureaucratic system so that it produces more, creates more resources and less red tape,” she said. “We must all change – ministers, legislators and public officials alike… We owe it to those who suffered and suffer in this tragedy. I hope that my resignation is the first step towards this accomplishment.”
Next week, see story on infrastructure repair efforts in other parts of the country, including the 10 bridges on high priority. Sean O’Hare contributed to this report.